Cock Review: Taron Egerton, Jonathan Bailey Lead a Blistering West End Production

John is desperate: “It’s not a competition. Please, please it mustn’t be that.” Cue his girlfriend’s snapped retort: “Then what is it really?” Good question. As revealed by the climactic round of mutual cross-examination when John (Jonathan Bailey) brings his girlfriend (Jade Anouka) home to meet his boyfriend (Taron Egerton), Mike Bartlett’s deliciously vicious, knockout play “Cock” is not so much a battle of the sexes as a battle of the sexualities. In director Marianne Elliott’s (“Company,” “Angels in America”) blistering and magnetically acted revival, the 2009 play doesn’t just hold its own; it holds its audience rapt even when they’re laughing.

Without dropping a moment of the play’s seriousness, laughter is the key element that differentiates and distinguishes Elliott’s revival from the original production, which, under the direction of James Macdonald, moved from the tiny Royal Court Upstairs to Off Broadway’s Duke Theater in 2012.

Although the play’s characters examine every connotation of its provocative one-word-title, its vivid ride comes explicitly from its emotions, ideas and language — but never its action. Its very considerable power lies in thrillingly clear suggestion, not literal display. It’s particularly amusing that in a play about a gay man who very swiftly reveals that he is also having a relationship with a woman, there are arrestingly erotic sex scenes with each partner in which the actors neither touch nor remove a stitch of clothing. The deft dialogue and subtext and the imagination of the audience do an exhilarating amount of work.

Scenes take place in specific rooms — bedroom, kitchen, dining room, etc. — but since Bartlett cuts to the quick so very quickly, typical illustration of them is pointless. This is the least literal of plays. So, to that end, Elliott and designer Merle Hensel banish all props, furniture and costumes changes.

Instead, beneath Paule Constable’s atmospheric but never overstated lighting across the stark, steel curve of the set, the actors are caught in dance-like tension with one another. What starts out feeling stylized gradually makes its theatrical point, with every emotion and idea expertly choreographed (by Annie Lunnette Deakin-Foster via blasts of music by Femi Temowo) to not just give movement patterns to the cross-cut scenes, but to illuminate ideas and tensions between characters.

Elliott’s cast is headed by Bailey, who in addition to exploding to international fame as Lord Anthony in “Bridgerton” created the blueprint for the neurotic gay husband in Elliott’s original London production of her gender-reversed “Company.” He brings the same comic exactitude to the role of John, who yearns to be truthful to himself but is clinically — and comically — incapable of taking responsibility for his actions.

Bailey’s whiplash comic timing lifts the character from self-obsessed to scintillating, a quality he uses both artfully and artlessly on his two lovers. Egerton’s more grounded rhythm and physicality balance out Bailey’s almost airborne performance. Together they show how different they are to one another while making their relationship feel genuinely lived-in by the way they suggest that opposites attract.

Anouka balances herself ideally between the two of them, playing an amused woman growing ever more sure of herself. Her initial relaxation gives way to fierceness, but along the way she makes the growing excitement between her and John immensely attractive. She and Bailey score comic sparks off one another, delightfully paving the way for the play’s serious intent as revealed in the final extended showdown, when John is forced to make his choice.

That intensity ramps up still further with Bartlett’s deliciously sprung surprise of the late arrival of the boyfriend’s understanding father (a marvelously patient Phil Daniels). Suddenly, the play becomes a cross between a jagged string quartet and the final neck-and-neck game of a tennis mixed doubles final.

Elliott’s mining and underlining of subtext and her sense of detail and overall rhythm pay huge dramatic dividends. In the West End’s most intimate house, she manages to have the actors play to one another but also to address and grab the audience, metaphorically pulling them into the action as the characters strip down each other’s emotions.

This engrossing, visceral ride through desire and self-deceit has a limited run and tickets are vanishing. If the in-demand actors are available, future life here and on Broadway seem certain.

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